The Aberfan Disaster Remembered

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Saint David October 21, 2020

Special Report by Dave Beese.

Today marks the 54th anniversary of one of the saddest and most poignant episodes in Welsh history which occurred on Fri. Oct. 21st 1966. The day a 150,000 tonnes water-sodden coal waste tip slid down a mountain overlooking the Taff Valley mining village of Aberfan. As it grew in anger, it first destroyed a farm cottage killing all the occupants before setting its sight on the village itself and in particular – Pantglas Primary School.

The Prelude

The day had begun as usual with the children singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at their morning assembly, oblivious to the stirring horror that was about to engulf them. Local councillors had previously petitioned the National Coal Board with their concerns and engineers had confirmed that the mountain was indeed a risk. “I regard it as extremely serious as the slurry is so fluid and the gradient so steep that it could not possibly stay in position in the wintertime or during periods of heavy rain,” said one engineer in a 1963 letter.

No Warning

In a shroud of wet fog, the liquefied coal waste mass started on its insidious journey at 9.15am, quickly gaining momentum to a speed of 80 miles per hour. The 30-foot tall avalanche was to totally engulf the school and 20 houses with over 40,000 cubic metres of debris casting a deadly blanket over the building and all within it. In all, 116 children and 28 adults were killed with only 10 rescued from underneath the deadly mix. If the incident had happened hours later, the school would have broken up for half-term. In another twist of fate, workers had seen the landslide start but could not call to raise the alarm as the connecting telephone wire had been stolen.

Thick Fog

Initial rumblings were heard in the village below but the thick fog hid any warning of menace before it was all too late. News travelled fast and 100’s of people stopped what they were doing and rushed to the site to give any help they could. My recently deceased Uncle was an 18yr trainee fireman when he was ordered to place tags on the toes of all those who had perished in order that they could be cleaned and claimed by their grieving families. By 11.00am, there were no more survivors and it was nearly a week before the bodies were all recovered.

Aftermath Tribunal

On 26th October 1966, a tribunal was appointed to inquire into the causes of and circumstances relating to the Aberfan disaster and it was chaired by Welsh barrister and Privy Councillor Lord Justice Edmund Davies.

The Tribunal’s report found that:

  • The blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board (NCB), and their “total absence of a tipping policy”
  • The tips had never been surveyed and were continuously being added to in a chaotic and unplanned manner. The disregard for the unstable geological conditions and the NCB’s failure to act after previous smaller slides were found to have been major factors that contributed to the catastrophe.
  • Repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored.

The Tribunal’s Findings

In the wake of the tribunal’s findings, there were many welcome and implemented recommendations but these were of little consequence to those who died or those who grieved for the loss of their loved ones. It’s impossible to even begin to understand the horror and trepidation of those caught in the murderous tsunami of slag waste as it gradually took the air from the lungs of those trapped. It is also interesting to note that nobody lost their job, was demoted or fined through their negligence due to the disaster.

Disaster Fund

Aberfan was arguably, one of the worst industrial disasters the world has ever seen and it seems incredulous that the concerns of the community were turned around into threats that the local colliery would close if they got any louder. Photographs of the deadly slurry avalanche awoke sympathy all around the world raising £1,750,000 (£20 million pounds today). Unbelievably, the fund was forced to pay £150,000 for the removal of the remaining coal tip threat as the NCB and Treasury refused to take full financial responsibility. The ongoing scandal and outcry would finally lead to the money being repaid to the fund in 1997.

The Past & Future

It’s difficult to understand how a community faced with a disaster of this magnitude could move on, but the simple truth was – it had to. To the past, the hillside cemetery created through disaster funding included two rows of children’s graves with pearl white arches and are spotlessly and lovingly tended in every way. In 2012, the Queen opened a new school – Ynysowen Community Primary School which is surrounded by tonnes of shale waste cleared from the tips and money from the fund has funded many projects in the area.

New Legislation

As a result of the Aberfan disaster, legislation passed in 1969 applied a strict policy to tipping and practices around the world were reviewed as a consequence. The majority of the coal tips around Wales have now been removed and blend in with the beauty of the surroundings and Aberfan shows very little of the carnage it once had to deal with.

Anger & Grief

The pain will never go away for those affected and to be Welsh is to empathetically share these thoughts as communities all around Wales would wonder what the consequences could have been if fate had dealt a different hand and the threat had arrived on their doorstep. Death may have had the winning hand that day but you can’t stop the beating heart of a village community that was so close-knit that nearly everyone would have been affected in some way. That closeness would turn into both anger and grief as a whole village stood shoulder-to-shoulder to grieve a lost generation and somehow endeavour to come to terms with its past in order to forge its future.